NEW YORK — An unrepentant protester who climbed the base of the Statue of Liberty on a busy Fourth of July in what prosecutors called a “dangerous stunt” pleaded not guilty Thursday to misdemeanor trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Activists packed into a Manhattan courtroom cheered when a federal magistrate judge released Therese Okoumou without bail after she had spent the night behind bars. Okoumou responded by raising her fist and blowing kisses to her supporters.
Outside court, the naturalized U.S. citizen from Congo told reporters that she climbed the landmark as a spur-of-the moment protest over the Trump administration's zero-tolerance immigration policies that resulted in the separation of immigrant children from parents accused of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
“When they go low, we go high and I went as high as I could,” Okoumou said, paraphrasing former First Lady Michelle Obama. “No children belong in a cage,” she added.
Okoumou, who goes by her middle name, Patricia, sported a T-shirt reading “White Supremacy is Terrorism” that she had worn inside-out in court.
Okoumou, 44, of Staten Island, allegedly “staged a dangerous stunt that alarmed the public and endangered her own life and the lives of the (New York Police Department) officers who responded to the scene,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement.
Court papers also charged Okoumou with resisting arrest by refusing to leave her perch by the bottom of the statue's robes, about 100 feet (30 meters) above ground. Police were forced to scale the statue to pull her down.
If convicted, Okoumou, would face up to six months behind bars on each count.
The National Park Service decided to evacuate more than 4,000 visitors from Liberty Island on Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution,” said spokesman Jerry Willis. Average attendance for the Fourth of July is 20,000 to 25,000 people, he added.
The park service also was taking a closer look at the statue to see if there was any damage, though that's unlikely, Willis said. The copper-pounded skin is only the thickness of two pennies but “it's strong,” he said.
“That statue has been out in the middle of New York Harbor for 130 years — with hurricanes and lightning and everything that nature has thrown at her,” he said. “She's survived quite well.”
The park service was reviewing security videotape to try to determine how the woman was able to make the climb, Willis said.
Asked about it herself, Okoumou smiled and responded: “I did a pull up.”